Film Fund-amentals: The Curse of Exhibiting

Making a movie is often compared to crawling through broken glass. Trying to exhibit a movie is the same only worse. Often, it feels as if you are on your hands and knees in an exploded glass factory and it’s a long way to the exit door.

Most indie filmmakers find themselves in a classic paradox. To get a distributor they need to get the movie exhibited, and to get exhibited they need a distributor. Oh sure, there is always that magical Cinderella moment where they get the movie accepted for screening at Sundance, and the minute the lights come up, there’s Harvey Weinstein thrusting a contract at the filmmaker. It does happen. To a few people. Of course your odds are higher that you will be hit by lightning during a shark attack.

Which is why indie filmmakers are always looking for alternative means to exhibit their movies. Even getting into Sundance is a long shot, and even if screened, the chance of getting a distributor’s attention is still extremely slim. Some indie filmmakers would argue that the Slamdance Film Festival is a better venue for finding distributors. Maybe that’s why it’s also getting harder to enter.

But most indie filmmakers are never going to make it to Park City for either festival. Or for any of the other top-listed events. Cannes is always too expensive, and the rest seem so far away (especially if you’re looking for good reasons to procrastinate). Besides, the odds are about as bad (and sometimes much worse) of getting anywhere at any of these sites.

As for all the other festivals, well it can be a little bit like bad sex. They can still be pretty good, but not quite the same as something with a strong dash of romance. Most second and third-tier film festivals do not attract distributors. So the filmmaker can get some exposure at these festivals and maybe even flip it into a move for wider viewing. But you will not actually get a distributor.

Which is why some indie filmmakers start thinking about doing it themselves. Four wall distribution is a fascinating concept. Why, it’s right up there with the Dynamite Death Chair act. The process is labor-intensive and money-draining, and most efforts to four-wall never get much further than the filmmaker’s home town (at least if they have a local theater that is open to the idea). It can sort of work for a movie that has a very fixed audience (for example, a documentary concerning a political and/or social issue that allows the filmmaker to work through an established series of organizations related to the specific issue). But in most cases, it isn’t really worth the effort.

The Pop-Up cinema has become a new (well, not exactly new) idea. The No Wave/Punk cinema movement of the early 1980s had a similar idea and was originally screened at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB in between the music. A variety of alternative venues can be explored, ranging from nightclubs to empty store fronts or even just a convenient open lot. Of course, you may get more police attention than audience, which is why you will want to make sure that you have legal clearance for both the space and its use. You would also be strongly advised to develop the presentation in cooperation with various other organizations in order to tap into a potential audience.

Perhaps the most succinct presentation of the modern ups and downs to these approaches has been demonstrated by Kevin Smith and his tribulations with releasing the movie Red State. Due to the subject matter of the movie, Smith was not attracting any major distributor. So at Sundance, he held an “auction” for the distribution rights (OK, this was more of an attention-getter than an actual auction).

Since the auction didn’t work, Smith announced that he was preparing to four-wall the movie. He started organizing the Red State tour with the enthusiasm of a politico charting a national campaign. It was sort of a national tour (15 selected cities) in much the same way that Charlie Sheen’s recent live show was theater — a very limited run that mostly built PR value. But it did get attention from Lionsgate, who were willing to sign a distribution deal.

The movie will now go for its broadest release on Labor Day via VoD. In some crazy way, Smith has taken indie distribution through a history tour as he traced his way from the early days of four-walling to the contemporary Promised Land of commercial online release. If it works, it will be a bold move that will cement the online future for indie distribution. If it doesn’t work, well, so what. Basically this is still the future, no matter what happens to this one title.

Besides, VoD definitely beats the theater clean-up after the screening. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t even want to know what some of that stuff is on the floor.